The mummy’s curse

karloff-mummy
I will not even put a picture from the new version.

Last night I saw the latest iteration of Universal’s Mummy movies, and boy was it terrible. I knew it would be bad, but there is no air conditioning in my current digs, it’s hot and humid, the movie theater only charges $5, and I had already seen every other film there that I could even remotely stomach. I am a huge fan of classic* monster movies, and the Mummy is my favorite monster. How could it be otherwise for an archaeologist? Many moons ago I wrote a (rather well-received, if I say so myself) paper for an archaeology class, comparing The Mummy (1932) with The Mummy (1999), so I figured I could handle The Mummy (2017) in the name of ongoing scholarly research.

Spoilers below.

But honestly there is no way to spoil a movie this bad.

First some general ruminations: Right out of the gate, this version of The Mummy was bound to suck because it’s been given the Tom Cruise/summer blockbuster/comic book treatment. Apparently Universal is launching a monster franchise a la the Marvel and DC Comics franchises, called Dark Universe, where all the monsters will be shoehorned and (monster-)mashed together. There are winky nods to the 1999 film that are utterly contrived and cringeworthy, as if to prove that hey folks, this is a coherent universe just like Marvel! This seems ill-advised to me in that, as far as I know, monster and comic book fandoms don’t really overlap much. I could be wrong. Anyway, I never liked the “Dracula Meets Frankenstein” type monster movies, nor do I like superhero movies that involve more than one superhero. I don’t know…I guess I can suspend disbelief in one superhero, or even an entire race of immortals like in The Highlander (please please please please please no Highlander reboots, Hollywood, I am begging you), but a whole posse of superheroes raises ontological questions for me that are never satisfyingly addressed.

In theory I could more easily embrace the idea of a multi-monster cinematic universe, because the supernatural comes in many flavors, but the more monsters you add, and the more types of monsters, the more you dilute their impact. Especially with the classic monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Wolf-Man, Phantom of the Opera, even King Kong and the Creature from the Black Lagoon), there is a distinctly erotic component that works because it taps into semi-conscious desires and fears. In a sense the monster is the masculine id unleashed. The horror is in the individual’s subjective encounter with the Weird, which as we know from real life, is always unique and unrepeatable.

But that can be a topic for another day.

Returning to this specific iteration of The Mummy, I’m more concerned about the disturbing subtext. So let me rant about that for a bit.

The “hero”

As you would expect from a Tom Cruise movie, it is more about his character, Nick Morton, than about the titular mummy. The Mummy feels like a McGuffin provided solely to universe-build for a new superhero. But Morton is a truly vile excuse for a human being: a US soldier who uses reconnaissance duty as a cover to loot Middle Eastern antiquities to sell on the black market. This lifestyle is referred to in the film as “adventure.” Now I love a good Film Noir-style antihero; and Hollywood’s take on adventure has always played pretty fast and loose with laws and ethics. Usually they manage to create protagonists who walk the fine line of roguish-but-likeable or outlaw-for-a-good-cause. For example, Brendan Fraser’s character in the 1999 version of The Mummy: it’s implied he is a mercenary and treasure hunter but he’s never actually shown looting anything, whereas those who explicitly loot all meet grisly ends. But Morton goes beyond antihero straight into Horrible Person territory, and it’s all the more unsettling given the dubious reasons for US interventions in the Middle East in the first place. Morton is about adventurism, not adventure. We’re supposed to believe Morton is actually a good guy because he saves a woman’s life, but sorry, I think the scales of Ma’at are far from balanced and I find it really disturbing that the film’s creators apparently think this level of bad-person-ness is something that can be cheerfully overlooked. The subtextual messages here are:

(1) If you’re an American (especially a soldier) you can pillage other nations’ cultural heritage and that’s ok, not only will you get away with it, it’s really just entrepreneurial spirit and “adventure.” Sure, as with archaeology there’s always the risk of unearthing unspeakable ancient evils, but they’re no match for GI Joe!

(2) The other day I was joking with a friend about what the Lord of the Rings would have been like if Tolkien were American. Among other things I speculated that Frodo and Sam would be cops. It’s no accident that our “hero” is a soldier, because apparently it’s no longer possible for Americans to conceive of a hero who is not military or paramilitary personnel. Note that in the original 1932 Mummy, the heroes were archaeologists. Nerds. And I mean actual boring archaeologists, not Hollywood’s idea of archaeologists, which is just looters with Ph.D.s.

Speaking of archaeologists, in the new movie it’s implied the female lead, Dr. Jennifer Halsey, is one, but actually she’s a monster hunter. There’s no need for an archaeologist in this Mummy, because it’s not about antiquity or knowledge in any way.

The women

And speaking of women, it is illustrative to look at the treatment of the main female characters in the 1932, 1999, and 2017 versions: Helen Grosvenor/Ankhesenamun, Evelyn Carnahan, and Jennifer Halsey and Ahmanet the Mummy, respectively.

The common theme of all the Mummy treatments hitherto is that said Mummy does bad things for the sake of love/lust, and as punishment was entombed alive. (Paging Dr. Freud…). So there’s a frisson of forbidden sexuality as well as religious transgression. The original (1932) movie returns repeatedly to the theme of sacrilege and trespass: inter alia, Imhotep’s use of necromancy to reanimate Ankhesenamun, the archaeologists’ entry into the tomb and violation of the curses binding the scroll of Thoth, even their unwrapping of the princess’ body:

Frank Whemple: Surely you read about the princess?

Helen Grosvenor: So you did that.

Frank: Yes. The fourteen steps down and the unbroken seals were thrilling. But when we came to handle all her clothes and her jewels and her toilet things – you know they buried everything with them that they used in life? – well, when we came to unwrap the girl herself…

Helen: How could you do that?

Frank: Had to! Science, you know…

All the layered tensions of cultural and sexual trespass in the 1932 Mummy center around and in the character of Helen Grosvenor: Being half-Egyptian, half-English and both herself and the reincarnation of Princess Ankhesenamun, she embodies the duality of the colonial. She is half ancient, half modern; half colonizer, half colonized; half alive, half dead; half the East, half the West. She is, effectively, Egypt itself. Not only her identity but her literal body is contested by these polarized forces, and her character is torn between them. She is, in a sense, the passive background against which the film frames its central questions: What are the costs of scientific progress? Of trespass? Does our pursuit of mastery over matter put us in danger from (non-material, non-Western) forces we can never understand? Helen is essential to the story in a way that, given the temporal and cultural context of the film, could only be portrayed through the perceived passivity of a gendered female body.

(The intersection of colonialism, archaeology, science, knowledge construction, gender, authority, place, and the supernatural make this film especially worth digging into, if you’ll pardon the pun.)

The 1999 version, though set in 1926, suffers no angst about colonialism. Bear in mind that the original was released only 9 years after the opening of Tutankhamun’s supposedly cursed tomb. But by 1999 we are sufficiently distant from those heady days that we don’t ask so many uncomfortable questions about trespass. Naturally it goes without saying that white people save the day, and that the hero is an American soldier–though more a soldier of fortune than a regular. This time the heroine is much more dynamic but–as reflected in her name, “Evie” (= Eve)–she is responsible for unleashing the ancient evil through her curiosity. It is made quite clear that the pursuit of forbidden knowledge–maybe just knowledge period–is dangerous. Whereas in the 1932 version the archaeologists give mini-sermons about the importance of “increasing the store of human knowledge about the past” and advancing science, in 1999 the motivation of the male characters is simply treasure, and that of the female character is scholarly acceptance and legitimacy. But although from a feminist perspective this is doubtless the best of the three films (the woman even saves the man’s life!), it seems like the writers couldn’t decide how to handle the erotic story component: They apparently felt it necessary to keep the damsel in distress element, but instead of making Evie and Ankhesenamun (read: Imhotep’s love interest) the same person, they split them so that there is no reason for Imhotep to be pursuing Evie (as opposed to some other hapless woman he could sacrifice). I’m not sure if it was felt that being in overtly sexual distress was too sexist or too creepy; or if they thought reincarnation was a bridge too far that the audience wouldn’t accept; or what.

Moving on to this year’s version, Jennifer Halsey is completely unnecessary to the story except as the life that Nick Morton must save to show us he’s not a totally Horrible Person. (He is a totally Horrible Person.) Otherwise she’s just there to translate a couple sentences of hieroglyphs and to be menaced by the Mummy. From this we see that:

(1) Colonial dynamics are back in a big way, just without any uncomfortable implicit self-criticism. The blonde, blue-eyed Caucasian beauty is threatened by the dangerous brown woman who just happens to be from an area now part of the “Middle East.” Coincidence? I think not. Somehow it even seems especially fitting that Halsey is British and must be rescued by an American soldier, like we’re replaying an America-centric narrative of WWII–here we come to save you from the baddies, Britain!

(2) Naturally our damsel in distress needs to be rescued by our paragon of American masculinity. She has no self-determination at all–she is ordered to Iraq by the male boss of the monster-hunting team, where her efforts are co-opted and derailed by her male companions’ looting; and for the rest of the movie one or the other of these men is calling the shots and she is left running along behind them.

Oh but wait, isn’t the Mummy in this movie female? Doesn’t that make it totally not sexist at all? By switching the Mummy’s gender, we’re supposed to spend the whole movie rooting for a (brown) woman to get her uppity ass kicked by (white) men. Note that the only female member of the monster-hunting team is the ineffective Halsey, who is also the only person who attempts (briefly, and of course ineffectively) to communicate with the Mummy.

The portrayal of Ahmanet the Mummy draws heavily on visual tropes from Japanese horror that are hella scary when done by the Japanese, but Hollywood’s attempts are always hamfisted. You know what I mean, the very white skin with the long wet black hair hanging over the face, writing on the body (in the Japanese context it would be protective Buddhist sutras), and the walking/crawling in a broken, disjointed manner. But Japanese horror isn’t just about the look, it’s the way it very skillfully turns your expectations of comfort back around on you. What you think is going to be a love story turns out to be literal torture, for example. It also excels in the application of very subtle touches to convey mood and build suspense. When it comes to horror, the Japanese get that women are mad as hell and given half the chance we might be unspeakably cruel and terrifying. Merely using the visual tropes without the underlying tension and mood comes off more like an uninspired pastiche. This Mummy is all image and no substance.

Indeed, the erotic component has now been almost entirely displaced from the story and characters onto the actresses’ bodies, in particular the scantily-clad Sofia Boutella as Ahmanet. To be fair both of the other movies also involve scantily-clad women; it’s just they also have plots. She needs to sacrifice Morton so that Set can inhabit his body (seriously, does nobody understand how gods are supposed to work anymore?) and then they will live happily ever after as king and queen of the damned or something. She ostensibly makes Morton her “chosen” because he freed her from captivity; we’re never given the sense that she is particularly taken with him sexually, albeit she tries to seduce him to her side; and he’s certainly not her eternal love from beyond the grave. Ahmanet’s entire motivation is power, not love or sex. But–not to beat a dead horse here–she is a McGuffin, not a plausible character.

The evil

In the 1932 Mummy, the evil–that is, what makes the Mummy a bad guy and a monster, as well as the plot device that consigns him to a living death–is necromancy. The implicit message is that life is for the living, death is for the dead, and never the twain should meet. If you raise the dead, then your punishment will be the inverse, to be entombed alive. Imhotep’s attempt at necromancy was a sacrilege against the gods, co-opting the magic by which Isis raised Osiris for use by and for mortals. Indeed the gods are a reality in this movie–it is Isis, not any of the humans, who ultimately puts an end to the Mummy.

Imhotep is a pretty obsessive dude, definitely a stalker by modern standards. He kills several people, and even worse, a dog, in his quest to get with Ankhesenamun. But basically he is lovelorn and just wants to be eternally undead with his princess, so it’s kind of hard to hate him.

1999’s Imhotep was having it on with the pharaoh’s concubine, and together they murdered the pharaoh, then Ankhesenamun kills herself. Imhotep is arrested but somehow gets free and does some necromancy. Of course he gets caught and you know the rest. Reanimated, he has two jobs: first, to kill those who opened his tomb, and second, to apparently be a terrible curse upon humanity. There are some obvious questions here–for one thing, if they went to so much trouble to punish Imhotep and keep him from rising from the dead, why did they subject him to a burial treatment where rising from the dead (let alone rising and then being an invincible one-man plague machine) was even a possibility? But I know, I’m applying too much logic here.

This version never makes it clear why necromancy is so bad (the gods never come into it), or why Imhotep is bent on world domination. He kills several people, which is bad, thankfully no dogs this time, but mostly he’s just another lovelorn obsessive.

The Mummy’s evil in the 2017 movie is, on the face of it, laughable: The bad girl kills the pharaoh and her baby brother. Big deal, that was just a regular Tuesday afternoon in the dynastic wranglings of ancient empires. Sure it was enough to get you executed and your name cartouches chiseled off your statues, but it certainly wouldn’t warrant being buried in a pool of mercury 1000 miles away from Egypt.

No, what apparently makes her really evilly evil is that Ahmanet performed some kind of witchcraft invoking Set, “the god of death” (I know, I know; if I rolled my eyes any harder they’d get stuck looking backward, but this is actually one of the least stupid things they say about ancient Egypt in this movie**), prior to patricide/fratricide. Throughout the film we’re reminded that Set is the god of death, and how terrible it is that Ahmanet wants to enable the god of death to be incarnate in a mortal body. One proposed solution: to allow Set to inhabit the mortal body and then to kill it and thereby kill the god of death! Again, clearly people do not understand how gods work.

So really what we are being told here is that death is evil. Could American death-denial possibly be writ any larger? I mean we’re not even talking damnation here, just plain old garden variety death. After Morton becomes possessed by Set, he uses his new superhero powers to reanimate two dead people. Indulge me as I unpack this a little more: In the previous incarnations of The Mummy, we are told that bringing the dead back to life is sacrilegious, blasphemous–the dead should be allowed to remain dead unless the gods decree otherwise. Now we are being told that necromancy is entirely cool because death is evil; anything that prevents death is thus good by definition. Nick Morton, for example, can be a Horrible Person, but he thwarts death three times, ergo he’s got a heart of gold even though he’s now using super powers to more efficiently loot antiquities.

In sum

What we learn from 2017’s Mummy is that death is evil, brown people are evil, women are either evil or useless, and all problems are solved by the application of US military force. Where 1932’s Mummy is full of the discomfort of a waning empire wrestling with the ramifications of colonialism, 2017’s is about taking everything from brown people that isn’t nailed down. It doesn’t even pretend that it’s for the good of the benighted savages, or that women are people. Its ethos is materialist and materialistic, exploitative and extractive, and most of all, in gibbering terror of mortality. Is this what American culture has come to? (Rhetorical question.)

 

*”Classic” for me generally means black and white and pre-1960s. But I also love Hammer films.

**They also overestimate the age of the New Kingdom by 2500 years.

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The Star.Ships conversation

Milky Way.jpg

Hey everybody. Long time, no post, huh? I am working at a temp job which is mind-numbingly tedious and at the end of the day I am fried and have no writing in me. This could, possibly, turn into a permanent position and I don’t know how I feel about that. It’s a question of whether the fear of continued unemployment is greater than the fear of this particular employment.

Anyway. I think we’ll all be musing on the implications of Gordon White’s Star.Ships: A Prehistory of the Spirits for a long time, and hopefully this will generate an ongoing and edifying conversation. I have the feeling that this root will produce many and varied branches. And so with that in mind, here are my preliminary thoughts.

Recontextualizing magic and human history

When I was a teenager and living in Spain, one of the princesses got married in Sevilla, where I lived. Prior to the wedding the city went to great pains to get spiffed up, which included laying new pavement in the Plaza de los Reyes, between the Cathedral and the Alcázar (the royal family’s residence when they are in town). As soon as they took up the old cobbles, they started turning up archaeological remains, including the place where people would do their ablutions before entering the mosque (now the Cathedral). They got down to the Visigothic period and then basically said, “Eh, fuck it.” They could have kept digging indefinitely: under the Visigothic would be the Roman layers, under that the Greek and Pheonician and Celtic, under that the Bronze Age, then the Neolithic, and on and on back to who knows when. They couldn’t possibly go all the way down to bedrock before the royal wedding, and the archaeologists probably didn’t have the funding anyway. So they just stopped at an expedient point, backfilled, and called it good.

That memory kept coming back to me as I read Star.Ships. It’s a good analogy for what our historical understanding of magic has been until the recent attempts to recontextualize it. On one level, we surmised that some form of magic went way back into our “primitive” past, but after you pass the PGM and Alexandria, you start to lose the threads. Plus there’s the whole materialist orthodoxy to struggle against, so we collectively said, “Eh, fuck it.” We picked an expedient place to be the beginning of the WMT and called it good.

In Star.Ships, Gordon is arguing that, by taking a synthetic (as in “pertaining to synthesis,” not as in “fake”), cross-cultural, and comparative approach and using multiple lines of evidence, you can in fact trace magical threads into the deep past. And in doing so, you discover some interesting things about human history generally–because it turns out that magic is intricately intertwined with the story of Homo sapiens.

Now I have to say this was extra exciting for me because the research I did for my dissertation was synthetic, cross-cultural, comparative, and relied on multiple lines of evidence. It also had everything to do with magic, although I wasn’t allowed to say that out loud. My research was profoundly out of step with the current intellectual mode in archaeology. Cultural anthropologists generally thought it was very interesting, and my advisor (who got his Ph.D. in 1980, a very different time intellectually) thought it was, to use his favorite word, “delightful.” He was perpetually baffled by my utter failure to secure any grant money. At first I was too, but after a few years I got savvy to what was happening. But I finished it anyway, because fuck that. I am of the opinion that anthropology is by definition cross-cultural and comparative, and yes, that has led to racist excesses; but to disavow that methodology is to scuttle the entire project of anthropology and archaeology. Star.Ships is what I imagine a Ph.D. thesis would be like if archaeology weren’t forced to maintain its methodological materialism and scientism (or would be if Gordon added 100 pages of boring literature review) and I feel totally vindicated by it. Gordon has repeatedly emphasized (in the book and subsequent interviews) that comparison per se is not bad, indeed quite the contrary, but it’s important to be discerning about your comparanda. In Star.Ships he has presented well-researched, intellectually rigorous, and parsimonious arguments that meet that standard.

Challenges to orthodoxy

Scarlet Imprint promised that “minds will be blown” in reading Star.Ships. And my mind was no exception.

In fact, I noted with some interest that the things that blew my mind were generally different than those that blew Gordon’s podcast interviewers’ minds. For example, I already knew about Göbekli Tepe and that Homo sapiens lived alongside other hominins for longer than we have been solo. But I was surprised at how persuasive I found Gordon’s evidence regarding a Southeast Asian/Sundaland home for sophisticated palaeolithic culture, and the construction and purpose of the pyramids.

In the case of Sundaland, I was simply unaware of the genetic evidence for dispersal from this region, or the very early dates for cultivation of certain crops such as rice and taro. This is something I plan to look into further on my own as it is totally fascinating.

The pyramids were another matter. Although I have grown a lot intellectually since leaving academia (ironically?) and no longer accept a priori the judgments of knowledge-production factory hacks, I still have been skeptical of some alt.history claims about, e.g., the age of the pyramids. In part that’s because I was mainly exposed to the more wackadoodle end of the alt.history spectrum (AAT et al), but the bigger issue was that I am not an Egyptologist. We can’t be experts in everything, and it falls to each of us to decide whom to trust in the areas where we lack expertise. Too often, we award that trust based on membership in our in-group (however we define it) over actual knowledge. For me, academic archaeologists have been my in-group for virtually my whole adult life. Yes, I know some of them are cranks, a disturbing number are misogynistic pigs, and then there is Zahi Hawass, who is in an asshat league all his own; yet, being familiar with and mostly secure in the methods of archaeological knowledge production, I accepted the general Egyptological wisdom that the pyramids were tombs of the pharaohs. I mean, that “truth” is so widely accepted within academia and conventional history that I am ashamed to say it honestly never occurred to me to challenge it. I could imagine challenges to the dates, say, or the construction methods, but I accepted the purpose as a given.

It is generally held by archaeologists that, given enough time and Turks*, even humans armed only with stone tools can build a monument. But the data that Gordon presents now make it clear to me that the reign of Khufu was simply not long enough, nor the entire population of Egypt big enough, to build the Great Pyramid with copper tools during his lifetime. Similarly, I knew that no mummies had been found in the pyrammids, but accepted that this was due to grave robbing. I had never even heard of the heb sed ritual and how it related to the architectural complexes surrounding the pyramids. Anyway, long story short, my mind is now thoroughly blown by the fact that there aren’t more challenges to the tomb hypothesis even from within the hoary halls of academe.

I can’t help but get a little chuckle over the irony: Materialist-scientistic academics are utterly resistant to the idea that myths encode real history (unless, of course, that history can be boiled down to something entirely material and un-mythic in nature), yet are completely hogtied by their own mythology. But ’twas ever thus with zealots–they can’t see that their beliefs are beliefs.

*The Turks thing is kind of an inside joke, referencing the large numbers of (Ottoman) Turkish laborers employed by early Egyptologists and antiquarians.

Japan

My dissertation research focused heavily on prehistoric Japan, a subject not well known in the West. Partly this is because Japanese archaeologists only started publishing in English relatively recently, and few Westerners have been willing or able to do the work necessary to learn Japanese language and culture sufficiently well to work with Japanese archaeologists. (And probably not by accident, none of them–so far as I know–are women.) The Japanese are as insular as the British, both geographically and culturally, but their language is more inconvenient for Westerners.

Although Gordon doesn’t really go into it, I think that Japanese archaeology offers some really tantalizing hints that Sundaland may indeed have been a center of Palaeolithic human occupation and subsequent dispersal. For example:

  • Gordon mentions the findings of a 2013 genetic study showing trans-Pacific contact in Ainu blood samples, going back possibly as far as 10,000 years ago: “If you are looking for the smoking gun for global sea travel right at the end of the Ice Age, then this may turn out to be it” (p. 70). This was exciting for me because I have long hypothesized that the Ainu (and before them, perhaps the Jomon, who most anthropologists believe were ancestral to the Ainu) were sailing to Alaska, if not further down the North American coast. We have archaeological and ethnographic evidence that the Ainu and Jomon were/are deep sea fishers, hunting big sea mammals on the open ocean. From the islands of present-day Japan it is but a short hop up to Sakhalin, then to the Kamchatka peninsula, then along the Aleutians to Alaska. Japanese fishing floats wash up in Alaska all the time (I own three that were collected in the 1960s, and a friend of mine found one just a couple weeks ago), which suggests that the currents facilitate, or at least don’t impede, travel in that direction. Next, though I can’t quantify it, I have always felt impressionistically that Ainu art (e.g., as reflected by their textiles) is stylistically reminiscent of the art of the Pacific Northwest. And since the 1970s, the Ainu have taken to carving totem poles which they describe as a nod to their cultural affinity with Pacific Northwest Coast peoples. That can be–and has been–put down to environmental influences: the Ainu and Pacific Northwest Coast peoples are all “affluent foragers” living in food-rich environments around the north Pacific. But, between you and me, I don’t think that’s enough to explain it. Now we have genetic evidence that suggests I was right.
  • The Japanese language is something of a mystery. It’s classed as an Altaic language along with Korean and Turkish (among others), and is recognizably similar to Korean, although not as close as you might expect for countries that geographically close. It has been suggested (I don’t remember by whom) that Japanese is descended from a dialect of ancient Korean which is now extinct. I think that’s a likely possibility, but many linguists have noticed that Japanese has some vocabulary which is probably Austronesian in origin, and Okinawans even more so. Quoth Wikipedia, Austronesian “is a language family that is widely dispersed throughout Maritime Southeast Asia, Madagascar and the islands of the Pacific Ocean…” (Sundaland and its diaspora, in other words.) Archaeologically, we know that people from the Korean peninsula began to settle in Japan around 500 BC. It is an unusually clear case of foreign settlement, with people who looked drastically different from the native Jomon population and used different technology. That may be when the Korean elements of what would become Japanese language arrived, becoming superimposed on an earlier, perhaps proto-Austronesian, language.
  • William Solheim considers prehistoric Japan to have been part of his Nusantao Maritime Trading and Communication Network, whereof he says, “I now define Nusantao as natives of Southeast Asia, and their descendants, with a maritime-oriented culture from their beginnings, these beginnings probably in southeastern Island Southeast Asia around 5000 BC or possibly earlier.” (I realize this is inside baseball if you haven’t read the book yet.) And seriously, I require an explanation as to why maritime traders in Southeast Asia/Sundaland would not have gone slightly north to visit Japan.
  • Japan currently boasts the oldest pottery in the world at about 14,000 years old. That means that not only is that pottery completely unassociated with the other elements of the “Neolithic revolution” as defined by V. Gordon Childe (e.g., settled villages, agriculture), but it dates to the end of the Palaeolithic. Pottery of similar age has been found in maritime Russia and Jeulmun pottery of Korea dates back to 10,000 years ago–again, without any other elements of the “revolution.” This earliest pottery was very simple and crudely made, decorated with simple fingernail impressions, but around 5,000 years ago, Jomon pottery became very elaborate. I can only describe it as 3D psychedelia. This was pottery made by hunter-gatherers, people who usually don’t bother with pottery because let’s face it, who wants to drag a set of china all over the landscape? However, around the northern Pacific, food was so plentiful up until recent times, that hunter-gatherers could live in permanent villages (though these post-date the first pottery by a few thousand years). Note that like Sundaland, Japan was not glaciated during the last ice age.
  • Based on Gordon’s summary of Witzel’s Origins of the World’s Mythologies, Japanese mythology definitely retains some Gondwanan features. For the most part, Japanese/Shinto myth is a collection of barely-related tales about the creation of specific things or places, or vignettes about the deities. This isn’t unique to Japan, but, given the Sundaland-adjacent geography and the apparently Austronesian stratum in the language, it could arguably be a holdover from pre-flood Sundaland.
  • When the Kennewick Man skeleton (dated to about 9,000 years ago) was first analyzed by biological anthropologists, they compared his facial morphology to anthropological databases with measurements from thousands of individuals grouped by culture and geography. These measurements are the same ones used by forensic anthropologists to identify missing people’s skulls. KM was found to be most similar to the Ainu (the Wikipedia page says Polynesian/Southeast Asian, but James Chatters personally told me Ainu). And the Ainu have been recognized to be the most similar of all modern groups to the ancient Jomon. Chatters speculated to me that KM’s features were of a putative type ancestral to both Ainu and modern Native Americans. The most recent genetic analysis, from 2015, indicates that KM is closer to modern Native Americans than to any other extant group. However, as mentioned above, it is very possible that KM falls within the period of trans-Pacific contact after the flood. KM’s maternal (mitochondrial) DNA haplogroup is X2a, of which Wikipedia says, “Sub-group X2 appears to have undergone extensive population expansion and dispersal around or soon after the last glacial maximum, about 21,000 years ago.” Haplogroup X is pretty rare generally, even in North America, but unlike the haplogroups more common in Native Americans, X is also not common in East Asia. It is found in low levels in Southern Europe, Caucasia, and the Near East. This suggests that the conventional model of the settlement of the Americas (East Asians crossing the Bering land bridge) is insufficient to explain the observed genetic variation, and that KM belonged to a population with a different ultimate source. Although by itself the distribution of Haplogroup X cannot confirm Gordon’s hypothesis of post-glacial maritime diaspora, it is consistent with such a model.

So basically, everything about Jomon Japan has been regarded as a weird, isolated mystery. But what if it was instead the northern hinterland of Sundaland? Could it show us a glimpse of the cultural complexity that once existed, or be an analogue for the embryonic civilizations of Sumer, Egypt, and Harappa?

I don’t have an answer to that. I’m just spitballing here. I’m no more expert in the archaeology of Southeast Asia (or the Palaeolithic-Mesolithic transition at the end of the ice age) than I am in Egyptology–but now I have learned my lesson about accepting any just-so stories.

Concluding thoughts

In no particular order, here are some other thoughts engendered by my reading of Star.Ships:

  • Boats and seafaring were way more important, way earlier, than has been recognized.
  • Europe was a really crappy little backwater for most of history.
  • Our relationship with certain deities–such as the Civilizing Trickster and Underworld Goddess–is much older than previously recognized. This is not necessarily saying that all Civilizing Tricksters are the same Civilizing Trickster, but it does raise some interesting questions. (I don’t have answers.)
  • Fears of cultural appropriation in magic pale in comparison to the ancient roots that all magic appears to share.
  • It occurred to me that the modern space programs are, like magic (and as Chris Knowles has argued, they are often the same thing), recontextualized as a much longer-term human project to connect with the stars. But what does it mean that this project is now framed in materialist terms? (I have a horrible vision here of some monstrous Neil deGrasse Tyson x Zahi Hawass hybrid.) What happens to Nuit when she is reduced to balls of flaming gas in empty space? Do we have to relocate the Otherworld? Or is materialist space science/travel merely building an addition onto our virtual reality prison?

This last point gets us closer to the heart of the book: Ultimately, Star.Ships asks us magical folk to take back our reality and our rightful role within it. I remember once in college when a pre-med friend of mine was opining that only M.D.s should have the right to be called “doctor,” and I was like, “Excuse me, Sawbones–philosophers were the original ‘doctors’ back when you were just a bunch of filthy barbers.” Like the non-medical doctors, we magicians have dropped the ball. We were the original philosophers of reality, ours the original “science”; it is our job to interface between our tribes and the world of the spirits, to be the memory-keepers and cunning-folk, but we have ceded our power and authority to the materialists. Now they deny we even exist. And we let them dictate reality to us? The very notion is absurd. So, are we just going to sit back and take it? Are we going to let our people struggle on alone? Can we stop worrying about gatekeeping “authenticity” and start working together to resist the hijacking of reality? Do you accept this “mission at the end of the world”?

It’s go time, wizards.

A history of archaeological theory in 7 acts

sphinx

Pssst. This is actually Part I of my review of Gordon White’s Star.Ships. (Don’t worry, no spoilers.) It was starting to look like my review would be very long, so I decided to break this part out. Anyway, it’s not technically a review per se. What follows is:

  • One archaeologist’s quickie review/opinions of archaeological theory and practice. It’s longish, but not technical.
  • A former insider’s view, but not an exhaustive one. I speak here in terms of general trends within Anglo-American archaeology. (For historical and economic reasons, English is the hegemonic language-of-record for archaeology, but there are regional differences that I’m not fully versed in.)
  • Possibly of interest as background/context for those reading Star.Ships. I am still reading it, but I find that it frequently motivates me to reflect on changes in archaeological theory, and how we got to where we are now, in terms of what we think we know, what information is canonical, and what is “anomalous”. I find myself thinking of what a non-materialist archaeology might look like, for example. The point of the book is to correct misapprehensions about the past which are there in part due to the fossilization of academic thought; my point with this summary is to give a former insider’s view of how the current (mis)apprehensions developed.

Act I

In the beginning there were antiquarians. They read a lot of (Classical) history and collected artifacts–and usually lots of pretty rocks, fossils, bird eggs, two-headed fetal pigs, and other curiosities of natural history.

There were some pretty remarkable ruins still visible on the landscape. Some of them, like Hadrian’s Wall, were known from historical records. Others, like Stonehenge, were mysteries and warranted further investigation.

Generally speaking, explanations came from either Roman texts or the Bible. If a ruin was big, and it wasn’t Roman, then almost by necessity it had to have been built by lost tribes of Israel or one of Noah’s sons.

At the same time, European countries were vigorously imperial, which was bringing Europeans into contact with very different cultures and people who looked very different. Racism was born, and so were the first stirrings that would one day become anthropology.

Act II

Antiquarians started to notice that artifacts and ruins didn’t necessarily match the received wisdom or historical texts about the past. There were civilizations where there shouldn’t be (i.e., where brown people lived), for example. Some started being more methodical when digging holes looking for artifacts.

Romanticism was all the rage. Wealthy young men went to the Mediterranean for a “Grand Tour” to sigh over the crumbling splendors of civilizations past, and stole the nicer bits for souvenirs.

A number of well-known antiquarians were Freemasons, then Druid revivalists, and instead of lost tribes of Israel, they credited the Druids with anomalous ancient ruins. There was an element of nationalism here–now, finally, Britain and France could lay claim to an indigenous civilization that, while obviously not as grand as Rome, was still pretty cool, and perhaps in possession of Lost Wisdom.

Act III

The scientific method was all the rage. If you were independently wealthy you could round up some young peasants and go destroy some poor farmer’s field looking for booty artifacts. The better digs actually employed painters to make illustrations of remains in situ.

Archaeology, geology, historical linguistics, and palaeontology diverged as separate fields of inquiry. (In the Anglophone world, especially in the US, archaeology aligned with anthropology, the study of all things human.) Now instead of just keeping your finds in cabinets in your house, though, you donated them to museums for the public betterment. Scholars were busy classifying everything into typologies: eras, cultures, language groups, and so on. They particularly liked tripartite schemes, such as Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age, or Lower, Middle, and Upper Palaeolithic.

It was clear from all the artifacts and ruins that had been found that there had been great changes over time, only a small portion of which was recorded by history. This correlated with the evidence for gradual change found by the geologists and palaeontologists, and even–galling though it was for some–with the theory of natural selection as posited by Charles Darwin. The Bible began to look not so credible as an explanatory framework.

Observed cultural changes were usually put down to migrations. After all, historical accounts were full of invading Gauls, Huns, Goths, Vandals, Mongols, Angles and Saxons, you name it. Also, as imperialism and global trade put Europeans almost everywhere on earth, I imagine the idea of migration and invasion as catalysts for change seemed rather natural.

In a reaction against the racism and ethnocentrism of previous eras, Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881) proposed the “stage” theory of human cultural development: all societies, left to their own devices, passed through stages of Savagery, Barbarism, and Civilization. This was a corrective insofar as it reminded the imperial powers they once were savages too, and tried to make them feel a little guilty for derailing the civilizational processes of the assorted brown-skinned societies whose heads they were busily measuring with calipers in between all the murdering and enslaving.

Act IV

Things continued apace until the era of the World Wars (WWII in particular). By midcentury, the Bible was right out and Science-with-a-capital-S was in. Science had just given the world chemical fertilizers, nerve gas, and the A-bomb so obviously was the pinnacle of human achievement. Archaeologists could rely on radiocarbon for precision dating, even.

In true scientistic fashion, archaeology became about finding out “what really happened”. It was still entirely historical in the sense that it was about establishing chronological sequences, but it was anthropological insofar as it looked for evidence of how humans interacted with each other and with their environment. There was also increasing interest in what ordinary people did (e.g., as revealed through trash piles) rather than grand narratives about the great and the good.

V. Gordon Childe (1892-1957) was a Marxist and materialist who was very instrumental in formalizing archaeology’s nascent material bent. He mostly rejected the three-part stage theory developed by Morgan, but, being a Marxist, he did very much believe in the notion of cultural evolution. His big contributions were (1) to systematize, in explicitly material terms, the characteristics of categories such as “civilization” or “Neolithic”–in other words, he defined what these terms would mean as archaeological categories. And to a great extent, his criteria are still being used, because they are now efficient and convenient. (2) He attributed cultural change to purely material causes. And (3) while not rejecting migrations entirely, he argued for change due to other factors. I can’t help but think this was in part a reaction to the fact that a number of countries in Europe and Asia had literally just been invaded, and were feeling the sting. Also, the Nazis had revealed the dark underbelly of archaeology and anthropology.

Chief among these “other factors” was diffusion, which is basically just a fancy word meaning that objects and ideas can move without migrations, e.g., through trade. If you live in the West and own a Korean smart phone, that’s an example of diffusion. However, while it’s not technically part of the definition of diffusion, an underlying assumption was often that objects and ideas go from “more advanced” to “less advanced” cultures.

“Historical particularism” was very popular as a theoretical framework, basically rejecting the idea of human universals and attributing cultures’ specific features to their specific environments, prior histories, and internal dynamics. “Cultural-historical” archaeology has probably had more longevity, worldwide, than any other mode. It is constantly mobilized in the creation of both national identities and nationalistic propaganda. I would say it is the most popular form of archaeology for the general public, too, who mostly what to know “what really happened” for a given time and place. Chronology and treasure are the bedrock of archaeology.

Act V

In the US (which is what I’m familiar with), the 1960s saw the rise of hard-core scientism with the “New Archaeology” a.k.a., “processual” archaeology. (Processual because it focused on processes, you see.) Archaeologists were desperate to make it clear to all and sundry that archaeology was a (social) science, dammit, not humanities! When I say science I mean physics. It’s pretty absurd–nothing humans do is similar to what, say, atoms do; but it was the Atomic Age, after all. It was also the Cold War. No one knew what the hell was going on archaeologically in Russia or China, except that it was undoubtedly bad, and Marxism was very out of fashion as a theoretical framework. (It continues to flourish in Japan, and of course in China.) New Archaeologists desperately wanted universal rules that would explain human behavior, and if a proposed mechanism wasn’t general it was regarded as irrelevant.

On the positive side, American archaeologists developed extremely methodical and precise excavation technique which is, in my opinion, unequaled in other countries. They also developed the concept of “interaction spheres”, where it was observed that, in contrast to the assumption that ideas and objects diffused from “center” to “periphery”, interaction forms complex webs and things move in all directions. On the negative, the theoretical became incredibly mechanistic, materialistic, and and deterministic. Consensus opinion swung even harder away from migration as an explanation for change, and the attempts to put everything down to independent invention got silly.

Act VI

Beginning in the late ’80s we had “post-processual” archaeology, which was a straight-up reaction to the excesses of the now-not-so-new New Archaeology. Things got very postmodern, but also very philosophical, and therein lay the big contribution of this period. French philosophers like Foucault, Latour, Merleau-Ponty, and Bourdieu were wildly popular. Archaeologists (and anthropologists) really began to question the epistemology of anthropology and of academia in general. Instead of just asking, “How do we know these people did X?” they started asking “How do we know anything at all?” Unfortunately, they did so with the worst kind of jargon you have ever seen. Anthropological texts became completely opaque, difficult even for insiders to understand. The attitude seemed to be that if it was clear, it was not worth publication (let alone a tenured professorship).

Popular topics of inquiry were “habitus” (borrowed from Bourdieu) and “agency”. Some archaeologists even considered whether artifacts have their own agency, although not, sadly, in the animistic sense. Instead of looking at cultures as collections of mechanistic “processes”, archaeologists became increasingly focused on the individual. Which is interesting, and a bit futile, since individuals’ concerns and acts are rarely visible in the archaeological record. Interpretation was focused on the hyper-local, in contrast to the universalism of the previous period; and interpretations were explicitly identified/confessed as such.

Archaeology remained “methodologically atheist” and materialist, but more attention was paid to people’s experiences, perceptions, and feelings. The processual archaeologists and the cultural historians laughed and laughed.

Act VII

You will have noticed that during the 20th century, theoretical fashions started changing much more quickly in archaeology. Well, of course that parallels the rapidly changing fashions everywhere else. We seem to have settled into a series of reactionary swings of a roughly 20-year pendulum. Each new generation rejects the models of the previous one, but because the shifts are so rapid, the supporters of the previous theoretical framework are still around to heckle the young upstarts.

We are currently (since the ’00s) in a very scientistic mood, where more archaeology is done in labs than in the field. About the only kind of research that can get funding is research that involves some kind of physics or chemistry–isotopic analysis, X-ray fluorescence, genetics, microprobe assays, 3D scanning and printing, etc. There’s nothing wrong with these techniques, and they have revealed new kinds of information we couldn’t get at before. For one thing, isotopic and genetic analyses have put migration back on the table in a big way. Cultural changes (such as the Bell Beaker phenomenon) that were first put down to migrations, then to competitive elite status displays across interaction spheres, are now turning out to have actually been related to migrations. Mathematical shape analyses of bones have revealed evolutionary differences that we previously had to pretend didn’t exist because they couldn’t be quantified.

Unfortunately, the theoretical, anthropological questions that used to motivate such analyses are getting to be scarcer than hen’s teeth. I feel that the current moment in archaeology has borrowed the worst traits of the two previous eras: the super-scientistic, materialistic bent of processual archaeology that naturalizes and legitimizes certain interpretations of the data; and the hyper-locality of the post-processual era that is so laser focused as to be virtually irrelevant to anyone who is not a specialist in the time, place, and individuals under investigation.

In our current anti-intellectual climate, ain’t nobody gonna get no funding for a project that ultimately seeks to investigate what it means to be a human, and what the human experience has been through time. Funding agencies want sexy results that will make the New York Times and National Geographic and in turn bring in even more money. This usually means either discovery of treasure (rich tombs with lots of gold, King Tut-style); something that claims to turn everything you ever knew about X upside-down (ancient Caucasian-looking mummies found in China); or discovery of a new civilization or fossil human ancestor (the latter isn’t even archaeology). You would think that would at least make for some exciting, Indiana Jones-style research, but that’s not the stuff that makes for tenured professorships: When I was briefly on the academic job market (before my mom getting sick saved me), it seemed like all the job listings were for people who would do some kind of lab-based sciency analysis of pottery and work in the Eastern Mediterranean. Yawn. (Even so there are too many applicants for those positions.) Meanwhile the journals were full of strontium and oxygen isotope analyses of this or that cemetery which noted that X% of the people interred were migrants from Wherever, but never bothered to tell us why we would give a shit and why it was worth grinding up some irreplaceable ancient teeth and spending tens of thousands of dollars to find that out. In the worst cases it’s just fill-in-the-blanks culture-history.

In conclusion

If you’ve read this far, it’s probably pretty obvious (if it wasn’t already) how and why archaeologists end up painting themselves into interpretive corners. To use Gordon’s analogy, it’s like a game of Jenga where, if you pull just one little log out, the entire edifice comes crashing down. And ultimately, it wouldn’t just be the edifice of archaeology, or even anthropology. All of academia could come down with it.